At the age of 80, Sixto Rodriguez is finally a music legend. A rockstar.
After years spent in obscurity, without even knowing how famous he was, the musician can now enjoy some spotlight (and his well-deserved royalties).
Rodriguez is far from being a mainstream phenomenon.
He recorded a few albums in the 1970s, but he soon went back to his job in construction when he realized he could not support his family with his profits from music.
Until very recently, when the documentary Searching for Sugar Man came out in 2012, very few people in the Northern hemisphere knew about his songs.
Things were different in the Southern hemisphere, especially in South Africa and South America, where his tunes became the soundtrack of rebellions against racism and segregation.
A shame that, in the pre-internet world, he had no idea of the impact his songs were having.
Rather than keep pursuing music in the States, where he could not make ends meet with record sales and live gigs, he decided to change direction and embrace what seemed to be his destiny as a working-class, second-generation Mexican immigrant. After all, as he likes to say, nothing beats reality.
However, that very reality came back knocking on his door. Thanks to the producers of Searching for Sugar Man, he discovered how big his music had been for decades. This way, he had a chance to recoup the royalties he was owed, get back on stage, and finally pursue a music career.
To celebrate his birthday, and his amazing story, I decided to dedicate this week's article to his songwriting style.
Due to his reserved nature and the circumstances under which he became famous, I couldn't find much about his take on songwriting. So I decided to have my own take on the matter and isolate five songwriting lessons from some of his best songs. Let's get started!
Tip #1: Stop reinventing the wheel
Songwriters often think they need to be very clever in order to stand out and make their music appreciated.
In reality, however, a simple blues chord progression, without gimmicks and frills, can get you very far.
Despite being a competent guitarist and singer, Rodriguez had quite a simple songwriting style. He would often write bluesy tunes, influenced by the American 70s rock feel, without going too crazy with his progressions and melodies.
Of course, some of his songs are a bit more complex than that, but he was quite consistent with his chosen genre and style.
Less is more has become a sort of cliché. It is quite a cheesy norm, to be honest, but it works so well with many different art forms. One of these is surely writing, and consequently songwriting too.
I think Rodriguez can teach younger songwriters that it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel to write incredible and timeless songs.
Just have a listen to Like Janis or The Establishment Blues to have an idea of what I mean. Three or four chords throughout the whole tune can be more than enough to convey your story or message in an exciting way.
Tip #2: Be authentic to your world
If we don't have to reinvent the wheel and be too clever, how can we make a difference with our songwriting?
Rodriguez has an answer to this question: just be authentic to your world.
What makes Sixto's songs so relatable is the honesty that feeds them.
In his tunes, he talks about the harsh working-class reality he experienced first-hand, often shaping characters we can identify as misfits and underdogs. What his characters go through in his tunes is probably what he had to go through on a daily basis. This is why his writing style feels so effortless: he knows what he is talking about.
Now, I believe that, as artists, we can (and probably should) take as many leaps as we'd like and venture into foreign worlds to get the inspiration we need. For example, this is why I write in English, even if I was born and raised in Italy.
However, Rodriguez provides a very humbling lesson here: songs should always come from a place of truth.
So, what is your truth? What life experiences and feelings can you use as the fuel for your songwriting?
Once you have figured that out, the real fun begins. The next step in the process is to find a way to elevate your personal view and make it as accessible as possible. In other words, make your songs relatable.
Since every human being is unique and we all come from different backgrounds, you won't be able to appeal to all the people out there. Yet, by being honest, your songs will surely resonate with your bunch.
Rodriguez wrote his songs taking inspiration from the poorest streets of Detroit, but those feelings, frustrations, and stories resonated way beyond his world.
Be authentic. This way, your music will cross borders and have an impact. Maybe without you even realizing it!
Tip #3: Tell a story
This has become quite a constant in my articles, but I can't help it. All the songwriters I love and take inspiration from are also great storytellers. Rodriguez is no exception.
In a way, Rodriguez is actually one of the best storytellers in my personal list of musical heroes.
So far, Sixto taught us how a simple musical approach and an honest view can be the perfect foundation for our songs. To take a step further and end up with great tunes, we can add the storytelling ingredient to our recipe.
Here is how Rodriguez does that.
First of all, he always sets an environment in his songs. Even the most intimate and reflective tunes feature a context. This context is clearly presented, often through a simple image or an evocative cold fact.
For example, in Crucify Your Mind, Rodriguez addresses the protagonist of the song in the second person, asking: Was it a huntsman or a player/That made you pay the cost?
We have no idea of what the story is about, but, in the blink of an eye, we get an understanding of what we are dealing with. As the lyrics progress, we discover that the song is about greed, the need to be true to yourself, and the consequences of a dishonest and excessive lifestyle.
Another example is Inner City Blues, which starts with a very clear description of the environment: Going down a dirty inner city road.
Another device Rodriguez uses to define a clear story in his songs is the use of points of view. He almost always uses the first person. When he does not, he usually addresses his interlocutor directly, like in Crucify Your Mind or Like Janis. This makes the story even more engaging for the listener.
Experimenting with points of view can be an exciting writing exercise. Writing the same verses in the first or the third person can result in quite a different song. Moreover, employing a different point of view can sometimes be the solution you need to enhance your storytelling and write a very exciting song.
Tip #4: Lyrics are everything
The natural consequence of what we have just discovered in tips two and three is that lyrics are extremely important. Unless you write instrumental music, which has quite a different set of methods and implications when it comes to storytelling, you should always give priority to your lyrics.
Rodriguez has a sort of trademark writing style that juxtaposes images representing poverty, greed, or even dirt with images and concepts representing deep feelings and intimate reflections. The relationship between these two contrasting elements creates beautiful verses.
Here are some examples.
One of his most famous songs, Sugar Man, deals with a very difficult topic: drugs. The character described in the song is actually a dealer operating in the roughest neighborhoods in town. However, some of the images used in the lyrics give us a feeling of peace and contentment, possibly to represent the experience of false bliss one can get from our protagonist's products on sale. So we have a silver magic ship and colors to my dream. On the other hand, we also have lonely dusty roads and hearts turning to dead black coal. As you can see, there is a balance between positive and negative elements to poetically express the message and the story behind the song.
Another example is Cause, which features quite a genius line: While the rain drank champagne.
The image of the rain drinking champagne is pretty peculiar in itself, as we usually associate this atmospheric phenomenon with the act of pouring or leaking, the opposite of what it does in this context. We can also notice some clever assonance between the words "rain" and "champagne", which makes the line even more interesting. Moreover, the element of champagne, a rich and posh beverage, makes a nice contrast with what the listener grasps from the opening verse, where the singer declares: Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas.
To get the best out of this lesson from Rodriguez, ask yourself: how can I describe a certain environment, character, or situation through the use of two contrasting elements?
I encourage you to experiment with this technique to become a great lyricist.
Tip #5: Don't do it for fame
Let's end the article with another cheesy, but necessary, lesson we can get from Rodriguez: don't write songs to please an audience.
As I highlighted in the introduction, Rodriguez got worldwide famous only in his 70s. He spent most of his life working as a constructor, without making much money nor getting any praise for his songwriting skills.
Yet, his songs are true gems. They all have something interesting to tell us, either from a musical or a lyrical point of view. They are relatable and authentic.
In our race towards success, we may be tempted to write audience-pleasing songs that end up sounding just like everything else. Whether they make you successful or not, in terms of commercial results, they won't be very exciting. Chances are the songwriting process behind them won't be as exciting either. So, what's the point in writing them?
While performing at a music festival, I once realized that my songs sounded very different from the ones performed by the other young ladies on stage. While their songs mostly dealt with love and break-ups, mine narrated the stories of sinners, misfits, and outcasts.
I am not saying that my songs are better. They probably are not. I am not saying that their songs are inauthentic. They probably are very authentic and close to their life experiences. All I am saying is that I deliberately ignored that little voice inside my head saying: "Your songs are too weird. The audience will never like them," and I kept writing what was authentic to me.
I am pretty sure that if I followed a certain standard to write songs outside of my inner world, the result would be very dull and meaningless.
Well people, I hope you found these five songwriting tips inspired by Sixto Rodriguez inspiring enough to get started with your next song.
Don't forget to grab your songwriting checklist for some help in writing it!